Grade Levels: K-3

This page provides information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about theme. It is designed to complement the Theme topic page on BrainPOP Jr.

Recognizing theme in a story can be elusive for some children. Guide children by asking leading questions and modeling critical-thinking skills that they can use to develop their own ideas as they read. Review with children that the theme of a story, artwork, film, or other work is the idea or message the piece explores. Explain that a theme might be about emotions, how people treat each other, or about something in our world that can be improved.

Help children understand that the theme is often a big idea about our lives. Brainstorm different stories you’ve read together and discuss the theme of each. You may want to start by exploring fables and fairy tales. Some children may recognize that the moral of a story is also the theme. For example, the theme can be about being kind to each other or not judging others by their appearances. Point out that readers infer, or look at clues in a story and think about what they already know to figure out the theme. You may want to watch the BrainPOP Jr. movie Make Inferences to practice and explore this important critical-thinking skill.

Explain to children that they can find the theme of a story by asking themselves questions about the characters in a story: What are the characters like? What is important to the characters? What do they do in the story? What do they learn from their actions? How do they change?  Discuss theme of a well-known story, such as The Cat in the Hat. Remind them that the cat loves to cause trouble and be messy. He urges the children in the story to break the rules. On the other hand, the fish wants to follow rules and  keep things tidy, warning everyone when things get a little too wild and out of control. The children must decide whether to listen to the cat or the fish, as they discover the consequences of the cat’s wild behavior. Ask children to brainstorm the theme of this story. They may determine that the theme is about making good choices but still having fun, or they may decide it’s about the importance of following rules even if they make life less fun. You may want to watch the BrainPOP Jr. movie Dr. Seuss to learn about more themes explored in the author’s works.

In addition to thinking about characters, children can also look at the plot, or the events that happen in the story, to identify the theme. Again, give a well-known example, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” in which the bragging hare decides to take a nap in the middle of the race, while the tortoise works hard to finish the race.  Help children recognize that the theme of this story is about working hard—”Slow and steady wins the race.” But it can also be a warning against being too sure of yourself or making fun of others. You may want to watch the BrainPOP Jr. movie Plot to explore this key story element.

Remind children that the conflict of a story is the main problem, and it too can help them to identify the theme. As they read, they should think about the conflict and how the characters respond to it.  Discuss conflicts of different stories with children and determine the conflict, such as a character having to carry out a difficult task, fight against an obstacle, overcome a big fear, etc. You may want to categorize internal and external conflicts. The resolution of a conflict can give clues about the story’s theme. For example, if the main problem is about two friends who get into an argument and the solution is that the friends apologize, the theme might be about forgiveness.

Help children understand that the author rarely directly tells us the theme of the story; we must use clues and details to help figure out the theme. The theme will be an idea that sticks with us long after the story ends.